It was a short walk down to their campsite. By now it was nearly dark. While we didn’t speak, he kept smiling at me. I could feel the butterflies dancing in my stomach. Soon, we were met by a girl with a round face and sandy brown hair. She focused right on Jay.
“It’s happening!” she said. Then she turned to me. “Hi, I’m Debbie.”
“Hi,” she said with a smile.
We quickly followed behind her to a small camp.
Four sleeping bags of various colours, adorned with individual blankets and pillows. Centered around a fire pit and a larger tent. There were three others, all gathered around a shortwave radio. Two appeared to be my age, one had long blonde hair and a tired face and the other looked like a dark-haired Pattie Boyd. Beside them was someone who seemed at least a few years older, with perfect features, rosy cheeks and honey colored hair. They all noticed me and made a space as Debbie sat down, but stayed glued to the radio. The time for introductions was later. We were witnessing history.
“Houston, the Eagle has landed,” came a man’s voice, spoken in a thick midwestern accent. Neil Armstrong’s.
As he and Mission Control exchanged a few words, I turned back to Jay. He was still standing, off to the side, his arms crossed. “Jay?” I asked, getting his attention. He turned to me, his mouth a tight line. “Won’t you sit?”
In response, he said nothing, and turned back the way he was facing.
I felt my heart race, wondering what that had all been about.
Debbie touched my shoulder. “Don’t worry about it,” she said.
The chatter from the radio continued. Because we couldn’t see anything on television, one of the announcers explained what was happening.
“He’s taking his first step…”
Then, he said it. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
I had to admit, as little as I’d followed the news or really cared, my heart skipped a beat. They’d actually done it. It was hard not to be thrilled, swept up in it all. Of course, they still had to get back safely, but the hardest part was over.
Then, Jay’s voice cut through the night.
“I’d like to get to Bismarck by tomorrow night,” he said. Before either of us could respond, he disappeared into his tent.
For a moment, we sat there, staring at each other. Now that we knew the astronauts had succeeded in their mission, the radio itself had faded into the background. The girls asked me to introduce myself, so I did, and in turn they told me who they were. The honey-blonde was Helen. The dark haired girl was Sasha. Debbie had introduced herself earlier. Last was Alex, who seemed to have a look of permanent sadness fixed onto her face. My presence was so normal to them, and I wasn’t even treated like a guest but rather like I had always belonged.
Alex then asked me if my hair was natural.
“Yes.” My entire family had been redheads. I was often told I looked like Jane Asher. As if I could get Paul McCartney to want to marry me. It was an odd question though, as I was certain America had redheads. Lucille Ball came to mind immediately, but I supposed she was really a blonde.
“You’re so pretty,” she said then, barely audibly.
Me, pretty? In spite of what patrons of the diner often told me, I doubted I was anyone’s idea of female beauty.
After another moment of silence, Helen intervened. “Should we go down to the lake?” She asked.
At this hour, the water had to be cold and the air swarming with mosquitoes. I wondered where Jay had gone, and if he would re-emerge. I badly wanted to spend more time with him, to be in his presence.
Still, the unconditional acceptance of the girls made me want to spend more time with them. I reminded myself that the reason I did this was to meet new people and to live outside of my comfort zone.
“Do you have a change of clothes, Claire?” Helen asked me. I pegged her as the maternal one of the group, and not just because she was older.
“Um,” I said. It took me a minute to realize what Jay had done with my bags. They weren’t anywhere in sight. “Jay had my bags…”
Then, Sasha chimed in. “You can borrow from one of us,” she said. That was when I noticed clothes were scattered about the camp. Some dried on rocks, others on tree branches, others beside the various sleeping bags. In my plain sight, Alex took off her shirt, exposing her breasts in my plain sight, to change into an old t-shirt. I seemed to be the only one discomforted by this. She saw my expression and gave me a look.
“What?” she asked, her voice clipped.
I didn’t know how to respond. Helen caught my attention then. She stood up. “Come with me,” she said, leading me towards a pile of rocks a few paces out where a few shirts were. Then, Helen did the same thing with her change of shirt, but, unlike Alex, actually acknowledged my discomfort.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I forget how different things must seem.” She then gave me a warm, reassuring smile, and handed me another shirt. Hesitantly, I began to change.
“I’ll look away,” she said. “But your body isn’t anything to be ashamed of.”
As she turned, I changed, leaving my shirt and my cutoffs right there. “Did Jay tell you that?” I asked.
Helen turned as I pulled the new t-shirt over my head and nodded. “He’s… well, you’ll see. If you stay with us.”
I laughed, out of nervousness, likely. I haven’t even thought towards the next day, much less any long term plans. Then, we all turned to the girls, who were ready.
Alex then began to dart into the darkness, far ahead of us.
I bit my lip. She seemed to have a chip on her shoulder and I wasn’t entirely sure why. The other girls in particular were much more warm. I figured that it had to be me, something about my sudden presence that upset her.
“Does Alex…? “ I asked. Not like me, I wanted to say, but somehow the words wouldn’t come. Sasha and Debbie, talking amongst themselves, followed her.
“She’s really nice once you get to know her,” Helen said as we then walked behind. “She’s just… she’s had a hard life.”
As we walked, I nodded, absorbing everything Helen was saying. I reasoned that she was right, that there were probably a million things going through Alex’s head that I didn’t understand.
Helen continued. “That’s what’s great about Jay,” she said, smiling. “Our pasts don’t matter. The only thing that matters is right now.”I liked that. Still, I was confused as to why Jay had reacted the way he did when all I had asked earlier was if he wanted to sit down. “Does he always leave you all alone?”
“He needs time to himself,” she said with a smile. “He wouldn’t have brought you here if he didn’t think you belonged with us.” Then, she squeezed my hand. “When the time is right, he’ll call for you.” I was almost entirely certain that she was talking about sex, but I was too nervous to ask for sure.
We’d arrived at the edge of the lake by now. Alex was already in the water, and Sasha quickly followed her. Helen went close behind, as did Debbie. They all looked to me. I stood at the edge of the lake, somewhat nervously.
“Jump in!” Sasha said.
“Is it cold?” I asked.
“No, it’s perfect,” she replied.
To hell with it. I began to laugh as I ran and jumped in. The cold stung for a brief moment, but as I emerged, I felt refreshed, at peace. I never would have done anything like this at university, never even dreamed of it. All in the water now, we waded in a circle, the moonlight softly illuminating our faces. I was probably only fifteen minutes from my flat by car but I felt much further away.
“Pretty amazing that the astronauts made it,” I said.
They all halfheartedly nodded, but it didn’t lead to the conversation I’d hoped it would. “I’d be an engineer if I didn’t hate maths.”
Alex laughed, although I wasn’t sure what was funny. I asked her.
“Maths,” she said, in a mocking tone.
“Sure, we say things differently in England.”
“Why are you here?” Alex snapped. I was increasingly uncomfortable in having this conversation around the others.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Jay picked me up, that’s all.” There was more I wanted to say, but I didn’t have the energy to fight with someone I barely knew who hated me for no reason. I turned around and swam back towards the shore. With no towel and dripping wet clothes, I was cold. I turned back for a moment and I saw what appeared to be the others comforting Alex, when she was the one that had been cruel to me the entire evening.
I made my way back to the camp, my discomfort exacerbated by the fact that I had no sleeping bag. I sat down and began to cry. As usual, I had come to premature conclusions about being accepted. Maybe I’d have them take me as far as Des Moines so I could catch a bus to Duluth. I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of living with Mum and Dad, but at least they would give me a home while I figured things out. I realized that in the three years I’d been in the States, I’d never once felt at home. On some extended holiday from which there seemed to be no return. But maybe I could go back. I missed Laura and Millie and Dan terribly. I missed not being asked constantly about my hair and my accent and why I said certain words differently. England was my home. I let myself cry, and I suddenly became aware of a presence behind me.
“What’s wrong?” He knelt next to me, his voice soft, his look concerned. He put a gentle, reassuring hand on my shoulder. “How can I help?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”
He took me in his arms and let me cry.